The power outage blacked out the entire island nearly until midnight, but that wasn’t what caused me to leave Bocas del Toro.
I admit to some nervousness, walking down the street with a thousand dollars, cash, in my pocket after one boy perched next to the ATM was shouting to friends in Spanish while others wove through the crowd on bicycles, nearly invisible in the dark.
Store and restaurant owners pulled pickup trucks up on the sidewalk, shining headlights at front doors where they were often standing, watching to make sure customers paid clerks inside who totaled charges on handheld calculators. A few stores, those with freezers, had generators that surged and rattled and illuminated bluish fluorescents.
The Policia Nacional slowly patrolled up at down the main street, occasionally turning on their red and blue overhead lights, but not getting out of their truck, not adding much to a feeling of security.
Candles were lit on tables in those places that had gas to cook, but the outage took down the community water pumps, too, so water mains had no pressure, sinks wouldn’t wash, toilets wouldn’t flush. There would be one seating.
There was an edge to it all, a nervous energy that for some may have been intoxicating, to others intimidating.
But that wasn’t what caused me to leave Bocas.
Bocas was becoming easy. I was starting to like it, settle into a routine. I’d been there a week. Probably a couple of days too long, in fact, but if I’d left earlier I would have missed out on the ending of the Bocas story. That’s always the way it is. We don’t know what the story is about until we move past the most meaningful moments to see it in perspective.
I will remember an evening in Bocas for the rest of my life. Not the last one, when the lights went out, but the evening before, when Alycia, Olivia and I were having dinner.
I’m calling them Alycia and Olivia, because it may be important to protect their identities. I learned some things that make me want to be a little cautious about disclosing their backgrounds, especially Olivia’s. I don’t trust any form of communication any longer.
Plus, we don’t have all the letters on the keyboard to write their actual names.
I first met them at the highway bus stop outside of Quepos nearly two weeks before. They’d gone to the bus stop before they were actually going to take the bus, to see where the bus stop was, to see if the bus actually stopped there, etc. I learned that’s what Alycia does. It was beastly hot on the asphalt, they were asking questions. Olivia looked Hispanic with beautiful olive skin and black hair, Alycia was wearing the Muslim scarf, and covered.
They were an incongruous pair and smiled at me when I tried to talk to them in Spanish.
“We don’t speak Spanish,” said Olivia in accented English. “We are from Germany.”
They both laughed when I shook my head in mock confusion, opened my hands to indicate their very unGerman appearance. “We are Turkish,” said Alycia, reminding me of the deep ties between Turkey and Germany, and stories about resentment over the more recent flood of workers into Europe.
We talked for a couple of minutes, I learned they were going to Bahia Drake. I was going to Boquete. Adios.
Looking back it seems absurdly coincidental that they would be at that bus stop and eight days later we would run into each other in another city, in another country. But that’s the way it is on the road. After a while you don’t even question it.
It was still a surprise when I saw them walking in Bocas. Despite a building fever and my head feeling like an inflating hot air balloon, I’d gone out for a walk and something to eat, I saw and recognized them, said “hi.” We went into The Pirate, a restaurant on the water, and we talked for an hour. They told me about traveling through Europe and Africa.
They are doctors. Alycia is an internist at a community hospital, Olivia a cardiologist specializing in atrial fibrillation at a teaching hospital. They live in Hamburg, Olivia “in” the city, Alycia closer to her family in a surrounding area. They asked what I did and we talked about that. I asked, “where are the boyfriends?” expecting to hear about boyfriends were back in Germany.
“That’s just what we were asking ourselves!” said Olivia, and Alycia laughed her silent laugh and nodded her head. Their plans were fluid, but they wanted to go out to the outer islands, maybe to the cave hidden deep in the mangroves, maybe to Red Frog beach. Those were on my schedule too, I gave them my contact info because the manager of my hotel was setting up these tours up and he made it easy.
I didn’t hear from them in the morning, though, but felt like crap anyway, sweats alternated with naps, and wrote them that the next day might work out better. Outside my window a family, or three families, lived in buildings ten feet wide. The end building looked like it was thrown together under the eaves of the middle space, which was open to the street except for a blue tarp stretched across what would have been a wall. I winced every time I watched barefoot children, either the four year-olds or one of the toddlers, pick their way through shattered concrete blocks piled across the entry. Not once did anyone try to clear a path.
As evening rolled around, I went out to get something to eat. I was talking to Avi’s friend Ben at a local gathering place when Avi called me to ask if I would join Valerie and a few others as she trained new conservation guides at the turtle nesting beach. It would last until midnight and we’d meet in an hour.
I went back to my room to dress in black so as not to spook the turtles, take not nearly enough Tylenol to break the fever, and pack water. We saw a nest, but no leatherbacks up on the sand.
When I got back, I had an email from Olivia, she had just gotten my note and wondered if the next day would still work out for a trip. Yes, I wrote back.
At dawn, rain pounded on the steel roof of the hotel, floated trash in the streets. I wondered if that’s where the bones I saw in the water at the port came from. Obviously the day’s trip was off, but I kept postponing until the sun began to break through. Though he did not like the direction of the wind, Avi called the dive office to see what conditions were like.
“It is perfect. You will have an amazing trip,” he said, “amazing” a word he uses frequently that indicates the color of his world.
It was just the three of us in the Panga, now a private tour. I turned to Alycia and said, “Since you’re the one who plans everything, is there something you want to do first?”
“Dolphins. I want to see the dolphins,” she said, enthusiasm childlike. She held her hijab, or scarf, to her head with one hand to keep it from blowing in the wind. Olivia smiled and nodded, wind blowing through her hair.
Our boatman found a pod of dolphins in aptly named Dolphin Bay, a huge flat expanse of water bounded by mangroves. Roots descended from branches and laced into the mud like an ominous aquatic fence. He slowed the boat just enough to create a large wake, inducing dolphins to jump and play 20 feet from the stern of the Panga. We laughed in delight.
When we got to Zapatillo, I asked if there was anything I could do to make it easier for Alycia to enjoy the water, I was willing to go to the other side of the island if need be, though there were enough people, my presence would not have made any difference.
She said no, though she had clothes for swimming, she didn’t really feel like going in the water. She lay in the shade of a perfect palm on the perfect beach on this perfect island while Olivia and I put on masks and paddled at the edge of sand and reef for an hour. Alycia got up once and looked out to where Olivia and I had been before a gentle rip carried us down the shore. When she turned in our direction I waved, she saw me and waved back, then went back to sit in the shade.
Sunlight brightened orange and yellow fish, red and green corals, in water so clear it could have been bottled. Several times, Olivia rolled to her back, mask in her hand, arms out, just drifting in the warmth of Caribbean salt water, eyes closed. Floating.
Alycia embraced the day from her place on the beach. Her modesty of behavior, manners, speech and appearance never dampened her thoughtful honestly, intelligence, ability to laugh. She didn’t use her faith as a shield against ideas that differed from her own. When I asked how she could be so non judgemental, she said she did not know enough about anyone else to judge them.
I pressed a bit, how did she avoid disapproval of those not adhering to her standards? She said again it wasn’t her job to focus on others but to care for others, a belief rooted almost as deeply in the culture of her parent’s village in Turkey as in Islam. She was as charitable and giving, and forgiving, as anyone of any faith, anywhere.
“My mother would buy a large car, not to have a large car but because she just assumed we would do things as a family, and her friends and our neighbors would have needs as well.” Alycia’s family had been poor, as well as Sunni, in Germany. Her father immigrated first, met her mother who happened to be from a village not far from his own.
“We had everything we needed, and if we did not have have something, we made do with something else and it was just as good. This is another reason why I am the way I am,” she said.
“Everything’s always good for her!” exclaimed Olivia.
Alycia was the one who planned their vacations down to the most minute detail, and then checked everything three times wherever they were on the road. What she was doing two weeks before when we met on the road in Costa Rica.
Olivia and I teased Alycia a little about checking and rechecking and rechecking. And Alycia laughed with us, but then had the last laugh. The evening before they were to leave Bocas on a shuttle to San Jose, she walked them by the shuttle office, where she found out they were not going to be picked up at their hotel as they’d been told. They had to be at the boat dock.
They would have missed their ride, maybe the plane back to Germany. But this is Alycia, so of course she had a “Plan B,” and probably a “Plan C,” one of which may have been to catch a flight from the Bocas airport to San Jose. If plans change and she has make adjustments, she does, and doesn’t mind.
I asked if her personality, her tendency to want everything managed, came from her faith, or had drawn her to her faith. “I think my faith and my character compliment each other,” she said with a smile, avoiding my trap.
I sat in the bow on the way to lunch. The restaurant was built on stilts well out into the clear water of the bay. We saw starfish five feet down in crystal clear water, a sloth hanging from the branches, it was hard to see, like a basketball caught in the net. Sitting side by side in the middle row seats, Alycia looked about trying to absorb every detail, one hand holding the scarf to her head; Olivia closed her eyes, imagined she was flying as wind blew threw her luxurious black hair.
Back at the dock we sat and talked. At some point the conversation rolled around to what they would be doing when they got back. Olivia was not looking forward to the 70 hour weeks, a presentation in Berlin in April and another in San Francisco in May. Seventy hours?! I asked. That is her average week, she said.
Alycia nodded her head and looked at Olivia with love and compassion. The 12 hour days, six days a week, often dealing with life and death decisions, were taking a toll.
“I wonder at times,” she said, pointing to laugh lines at the corners of her lovely eyes.
They talked about the ten years of doing this before there might be a break. Alycia said at one point that Olivia was giving up ten most important years for an uncertain outcome. I asked what the goal was.
Olivia said that it was important not to give up, that others were working just as hard. I said she could be anywhere in the world, doing nearly anything she wanted. She kept returning to a vagueness about not giving up, not disappointing others. I asked who would be disappointed and she acknowledged everyone she knew was telling her the same thing, and so would her father.
It was a fascinating shift, Alycia in her scarf advocating for less rigidity, fewer dictates, more personal happiness or satisfaction; Olivia describing the need to do things because she should. It wasn’t until the next evening I would discover why.
“Why do you do it?” I asked.
“What do you mean?”
“70 hours? That’s about 12 hours a day, six days a week. That doesn’t leave any time to have much of a life.”
“Maybe that’s why I don’t have much of a life,” she said with a half-laugh.
Alycia nodded and said, “My life is not too easy, but not nearly as difficult as Olivia’s. I have more time off.”
It seemed incongruous. The conservative, observant Muslim who wore a scarf and did not go in the water at the beach a few hours before, had it ‘easier’ (stupidly inadequate word) than this woman who wore bright sundresses over a lithe body and floated, hands out and eyes closed, supported by the warm salt water for minutes at a time; who sat with her eyes closed facing forward as the boat raced and wind blew past her face and through her hair, imagining she was flying.
I admit these images colored my reaction. I admit I thought 70 hours of work per week was an especially high cost for a woman of her youth and beauty, even a research cardiologist at a teaching hospital.
But I also gained momentum from Alycia when I asked why she wasn’t participating in the conversation, and she said, “Olivia and I have had this conversation many times. I am thinking it is good for Olivia to hear this from somebody else.”
“Why do you do this?” I asked again.
“Others do this. My advisor does this. Other doctors do this.”
“Are they just like you? Do they like to dance like you do?” I’d earlier confessed I danced to music as if possessed, that I’d left a woman who told me to stop dancing and act my age, that I planned to dance all the way to my grave. Her face had lit and she exclaimed “I love to dance!”
“Do we know if ‘doing this’ makes them any happier than it makes you? What’s the goal?” I asked.
“My plan was to do this for ten years. Then it should not be so bad.”
“I tell her she is using up the most important time of her life!” Alycia said.
“Do others who have done this for 10 years have it easier?” I asked.
Olivia grew sad, and shook her head. “I can’t just quit. It would be such a disappointment.”
“To whom?!” I asked. “What do your mother and brother say? What would your father say?”
“They say they want me to be happy. My father would tell me to be happy.”
“Does the 70 hours you will work next week make you happy?”
“I love my work. 40 hours of my work every week would be perfect,” she said.
Alycia looked at Olivia with such compassion, it startled me. Several times already I had seen what I could only describe as unconditional love and acceptance.
The next day our guide, a different one, pushed us too fast. He used his motor when he should have used an oar. The guide in the boat in front of him put his fingers to his lips once to tell him to be quiet. We followed the meanders through the mangrove to the small dock. There were three dugouts hauled up on the mud, and a few huts a little further into the jungle. God, it sounds so pretentious to write something like that, but what do you do when it’s true?
We crowded another group that arrived at the mangrove entrance just before we did. I think the other guides teased him about wanting to be first.
At the cave we wandered through passages where the water was cool, and chest deep. The rocks were slimy with either mud or some sort of growth. I was at the end of the pack, there was a group of Spanish and Germans ahead of us.
My favorite were the bats flying about, squeaking to find out where everybody was standing, resolving all those squeaks bouncing off bodies and cave walls while in fast flight. The mud was red, my white shirt, the only color I have since I shipped everything else home, was a mistake. Our young guide kept pushing us forward. I finally told him to back off, there was no room to advance because of the party in front of us.
Alycia stayed back, coming only about half way. It would be a bit of a drag wearing all that wet. Plus, she was wary of things like stagnant standing water, mosquitoes, etc. maybe especially since Olivia contracted malaria when they were in Africa last year or the year before. The cave was good enough, but not spectacular. I’ve wandered the lava tubes around home, also a land of volcanos.
We motored past beautiful sailboats coming in to Red Frog beach. Some were of deeply varnished wood and polished brass; catamarans of shiny white, meticulously clean fiberglass, and one megayacht, incongruously named “Secret.” There is no way I can imagine to hide a secret spoken so loud, but the world’s a big place.
“Join me for lunch on my runabout?” I asked Alycia and Olivia, waving nonchalantly at “Secret,” getting the hoped for laugh.
We wandered up and down the wide gravel road to Red Frog Beach, went up the wooden walk way and then scrambled a ways up a leafy and somewhat slick slope, Alycia wanting to get a photo of a red frog. No luck.
Alycia and Olivia stayed on the sand, I body surfed and tried unsuccessfully to wash cave mud from my white shirt in the waves. Our allotted hour and a half over, we banged our way through the chop in the fiberglass Panga back to the hotel, found a store that sold local chocolate and agreed to meet at six for dinner.
That’s where I would hear a story that both pained and filled my heart, at the very same time.
I’d changed into the black shirt and black shorts and smiled that I’d worn “both” of my “out-on-the-town” outfits in five days. Alycia said to just walk the length of the street in front of my hotel until it ended, I would run into theirs. It took longer than I thought.
As we walked back toward the restaurant, I made a comment that Alycia must have booked a hotel close to the airfield just in case they missed the boat. No, it wasn’t near any airport, they both said, though it is near the soccer field. I walked them back the way I had come.
“I get that you might have missed the runway lights, but the control tower? The planes?” I pointed past the soccer players. Olivia laughed when she saw a plane and realized how many times they’d walked past without noticing. Granted, the “control tower” wasn’t much over 30 feet high.
The small restaurant where we had dinner was rough, chairs on a mostly dirt and sand floor, the front door a section of garden lathe leaning up against the fence. But the food had been great when Avi and Valerie let me take them to dinner there. I was in the mood for good food rather than spending more for tourist fare than it was worth, even with a table on the water. Alycia was quiet but said she would perk up once she had eaten.
At some point, it came up that they would not likely share their next vacation. Alycia planned to do short trips in southern France or Italy, Olivia planned to return to the place where her family came from in Turkey. Southeastern Turkey. Near the Turkey, Iranian, and Syrian borders. That’s a dangerous place, I said. She said something else, then said, these are my people, “I am Kurdish.”
Olivia was three when her father disappeared the first time, her little brother was one. Apparently her father, a teacher, had taught or written an article or pamphlet that rebuted a claim by Attaturk that all of of the people in Turkey were Turks. Actually, Olivia’s father wrote, there were several ethnic groups, including Kurds, in Turkey.
They came for him. They took him. They didn’t release him until months later.
That happened more than once. Then, on the first day of school when she was about six, her father took her to school, presenting her for her education, she remembers.
“This is my daughter, she is here and ready to learn,” I think she said of that day, the day he fled to Germany the first time, in fear of his life. He was gone for years.
Olivia remembers living at her grandfather’s house between the front lines of proTurkey fighters and what I assumed were the PKK, Kurdish independence fighters. She remembered bullets coming from both directions.
Her father returned to his family. His own parents wanted him to take over their farm, be prosperous as they were, and to be quiet. But her father was an idealist, with his own passions, unable to hide those passions in classrooms where he taught. Children tell stories to their parents, parents tell others. After a year he left once again, probably for his life. When Olivia was 13 or so, her mother moved with her two children to join her husband in Germany.
“I was not an easy child,” Olivia said. “I told her I did not want to go. I told her I did not want to trade the many I knew and loved in Turkey for one I barely knew in Germany.”
They moved, nonetheless. But six months after they arrived, maybe a year, her father was diagnosed with cancer. He had months to live. Olivia wondered, again, what was the point. They had lost him, found him, lost him, found him, and now were going to lose him forever.
But her father was not yet finished.
“He would talk to me, late into the night,” she said. “Every night, every chance he could. I would say, ‘stop! I can’t hear another word!’ But he wouldn’t stop, he would just say that when I needed it, I would remember these things he had to say.”
“He was trying to pour everything he knew into you, trying to make up for lost time?” I asked.
“Yes, I think that is true.”
“You said you were angry when you had to go to Germany for a stranger, but you have said you loved your father. When did your anger change to love?”
“I think it happened over time, while he was alive and after, when I began to realize what I meant to him.”
“As a man probably about your father’s age, and a father, I can only imagine the urgency he felt,” I said. “His need to make up for lost time, past and future. My guess is that he felt like he wanted to open your head and pour everything he knew inside.”
“Yes. My mother was angry. ‘What about me?’ she said. But still my father talked to me, constantly, about anything, about everything. He told my little brother to ask me questions after he was gone, to learn what he needed from me.
“Maybe that’s why he stays so close,” Olivia said this last with a laugh to Alycia, who laughed with her in turn.
“I don’t know why he did not talk that much my mother, so she could tell me and my brother.”
“Because he wanted you to hear it from him, he wanted to know it had been said to you in the way he wanted to say it. Your mother might have left something out, or filtered it in some way,” I said.
“Yes, I think that may be true,” she agreed after a moment.
“Olivia, have you ever talked to anyone about PTSD?”
“What is that?” she asked.
“Post Traumatic Stress.”
“Why? I do not have that, I do not dwell on these things.”
“She does not,” added Alycia. “Olivia is not one who cries, ‘look at me, look at how sad I deserve to be.’ ”
Olivia’s mother, who did not remarry, was or is a draftsman, later a designer or draftsman for aeronautical parts. “She is a very strong woman,” Olivia said.
“Do you think your experience as a child has anything to do with your feeling that if you are not perfect, constantly trying, then you will have failed, disappointed others?” I asked.
“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
We left the restaurant to get a cola nightcap elsewhere in town. A somewhat attractive, possibly inebriated woman was sitting in a chair just inside of the restaurant, maybe waiting for an order to go, maybe waiting to go with an employee after the restaurant had closed.
The woman looked for a moment at Alycia and her scarf, a moment at me, then did not take her eyes off Olivia all the way to the door.
It was dark, warm and humid when we got to the street. I was glad Alycia and Olivia did not seem ready for the evening to end, I certainly was not. We walked 500 meters along the street outside.
A very stoned, handsome surfer was walking the other way in a group. I watched his eyes lock onto Olivia. As he walked past, his head turned nearly 180 degrees, completely oblivious to the fact I’d turned to look at him. Ten steps later, after all the synapses in his brain decided to pull in the same direction, I heard him call out “You are SO beautiful!”
We found a cola in another restaurant, after leaving one where the service was so poor I did not want to give them a dime (no coincidence, it was part of the hotel where I spent my first night in Bocas). Alycia talked about knowing she was loved, the sense of security.
“Neither of you drink?” I asked.
“No no,” said Alycia, a smile at the obviousness of her answer. “I don’t at all, but Olivia will have a glass of wine. Though she never gets drunk.”
“Not when I am with you!” said Olivia, with a bright laugh.
It was not always easy being a “woman of ethnicity” in Germany, even in the medical profession. Bigotry was not overt, and rarely from patients regarding the quality of care, but there could be “differences.” Olivia did not necessarily believe in a Kurdistan, though she may have been avoiding the topic. Alycia laughed when she said her mother liked that she traveled, but would not want her to be “any more selfish.”
“What about YOU?” Olivia asked at one point. I said I had not had a drink in decades, but she said, no, what about my life, where did I come from?
I confessed to a somewhat difficult childhood, an abusive father and mother disabled by booze, but was not about to go into detail after what I’d heard from her. I deflected to talking about children, our need to feel connected.
“I can’t believe at times how indifferent the world can be, how things like politics and power can be so disruptive or destructive. All your father wanted was to tell what he thought was the truth,” I said. “Look what that did to your family.”
We talked a little about romantic love. Olivia said it doesn’t last, something I’ve heard from others.
“Yes, but maybe being ‘in love’ is replaced by true love,” I said.
When asked, Alycia said something about loving someone for the right reasons, for what they could bring the family, and it seemed, the community. “You can learn to love the right person,” she said at last.
“That sounds like you’re buying a HOUSE!” said Olivia.
“I think she meant loving someone, as opposed to falling in love,” I said.
“Yes, but still!” Olivia said.
Olivia had been in love, it ended, she was not going to go into detail besides saying he was incredibly handsome, and sophisticated. She may have fallen out of love after a year, but it lasted too long until it was actually over.
He had reached for her as she pushed him away, he may have promised anything and everything, which she said would have just deprived him of respect. She was Turkish, she said, which she equated with a state of constant heartbreak.
“Maybe I am Turkish too,” I said, and we all laughed. “I often wonder ‘where is my companion?’ I wonder if I didn’t try hard enough, or if I tried too hard.”
“Olivia, how many times have you told that story, the one from tonight?” I asked.
She shrugged, said maybe pieces to her boyfriends, maybe a few times, if not in this detail. Alycia said she’d never heard it in this much detail.
“Why?” she asked.
“Because I want to thank you, for sharing what I can only imagine was your father’s ache to make up for lost time, and for time lost. His love for you, his sense of near panic to communicate who he was. The sacrifice and the loss is both so painful, and so beautiful.”
“That is what I came to understand,” she said. “What I meant to him. That’s when I knew I loved him.”
“Did you tell him? I asked.
“Yes, at the end. He said I didn’t need to say, he knew it.”
I walked them back to their hotel. It took 10 or 15 minutes. Somewhere on that walk, Alycia said something nice about when we first met, at the bus stop, for two minutes or so, two weeks before.
“I told Olivia then, here was someone interesting, someone we could travel with, if we were going the same places,” Alycia said, Olivia nodded. Her saying that gave me a deep joy, but I never trust my own emotions.
I shook hands first with Alycia, then shook hands with Olivia.
“You need to see the Pacific Northwest,” I said. “It’s my backyard. I’d love to show you around.”
They walked into their hotel, I walked down the long dark street to mine. On the way, I tried to take a picture of the partial skeleton of some sort of creature that was lying at the bottom of the deep gutter that ran in front of the houses and out into the sea.
For all our sophistication, for all our wonderful words and grand edifices, we remain such a primitive species.
I didn’t leave Bocas the next day, as I’d planned. Now I had to digest a father’s immense but truncated love for his daughter and his family, wondering how he dealt with leaving them for years, if he was torn between patriotism and love, the sacrifices his ideas demanded from him and from those, like his Olivia, who had not chosen the battle, how that may have created a fear that if she stopped striving, she would be overtaken by the chaos that first enveloped a child only three years old.
All this contrasted with Alycia’s calm certainty that doing the right thing was the right thing to do, knowing she was loved and the comfort that brought, within a faith that controlled as it sustained, without any sense of deprivation.
When these thoughts had been put in their proper place, in my heart if not completely understood, it would be time to leave. To stay longer would have been to risk all this beginning to dissipate, something I did not want to happen.
I was working on all this when I heard him, before I saw him. I was drinking a coffee, meditating out over the water, sailboats boats rhythmically swaying in the marina, and further out, at anchor. Morning light threw everything into stark relief, it was not yet too hot and there wasn’t yet the droning pulsation of outboards as water taxis dove through their own wake.
The moment was interrupted by a high pitched, demanding voice that dripped with condescension: ”A single shot. Then you steam the milk and put it on top. Can you understand that? Can you understand anything? Not a full cup!”
When the Panamanian woman put the cup on the counter, he said, “Oh, shit! Nevermind!” and left it in front of her, stormed past my table to sit on the bench right in my view of the sailboats.
He struggled to find a lighter in his pocket, tore at a pack of Marlboros until he got one to his mouth, lit it and sucked down the smoke while glaring out at the day, his head jerking about as if on alert against threat.
I know it didn’t help my attitude that I got full face of his second hand smoke.
Another bird. Angry Bird. His eyes were intense, his motions uneven, what appeared to be a constant state of anger had stripped every ounce of fat from his body. His veins and arteries layered over his legs and arms as if they were on the outside of his body, the skin was drawn back tight against his downturned grimace of a mouth, longish white hair going everywhere.
Angry Bird could have been any age between 55 and 75. His voice was pitched high and came out with a drawl. I don’t know Southern inflections so I couldn’t tell if it was Texas or Georgia or someplace in between. All I knew was that it was an amplified screech of fingernails on a chalkboard to me.
Eventually he was joined by a woman 20 or 30 years younger. She too lit a cigarette, and they sat silently looking out over the water. He picked up a magazine and put it down, picked it up and put it down, not finding any absence of self. She asked him something I could not hear, but his reply was loud enough for everyone to hear.
“There’s no point. They can’t make a simple latte without ruining the whole damn thing!”
His feet tapped a ceaseless rhythm, or when he had his legs crossed, the suspended foot jerked up and down, as if keeping time to a drumbeat. He didn’t tap ash from his cigarette, he threw it from his cigarette and sometimes it landed in the ashtray.
When another Panamanian woman came to work the counter, he gave it another try. This time carried the cup to a table, poured sugar into the cup and attacked the mixture with a spoon. He poured some of the coffee into the saucer from which he loudly slurped, bent over so the spill went to the table instead of his lap.
He did that twice, left the saucer and carried the cup over to where his companion sat in the sun, tried to light another cigarette but had trouble with cup, lighter, cigarette pack until his girlfriend said, “Here, let me help.”
One more sip and Angry Bird stood, took the cup over to the table he had now trashed with spilled coffee and empty sugar packets, used the saucer he drank from as an ashtray, left the cup and went back and picked up his magazine.
“It has no flavor. They put in too much water,” he said. Girlfriend got up and brought him back a Coke.
“Do you want to go someplace today? Girlfriend asked. “We’d have to go early, I know you can’t be out in the heat.” Angry Bird growled a reply I could not hear.
“Nobody could stand being out in this heat for long,” she amended.
At some point, Avi took over from his staff all care of this man and his girlfriend, asking every 15 minutes if there was something they needed, something he could get them.
There was generally a pinwheel of activity at the restaurant that ended in a dock over the bay, people coming through to take tours, surfers loading boards on Pangas, locals or near locals gathered for lunch, and a mix of languages, with English not the most common. Angry Bird scowled and looked out over the bay.
Avi was once on the phone speaking Hebrew to a friend or business associate. Many in Bocas are from Israel. When he clicked off, Angry Bird asked, “What language was that you were speaking?”
“That was Hebrew,” Avi said.
“Is that like Yiddish?”
Avi gave an explanation of the difference, most of which Angry Bird did not seem interested in. When he stood up a little later, he banged his head on the TV that hung from the post over the table. It was a good thwack and made my head hurt just from the sound.
He sat right back down, rubbing his head from the pain, glowered up at the TV, looked down at the table. When his girlfriend asked if he was alright, he said he should have just stayed home, where he knew where everything was.
Later he asked Avi where there was a good restaurant, and when Avi wrote out his list, as he had done for me and for others, Angry Bird asked if Avi would go with them.
“I don’t speak the language. What would you think about coming along and helping us out?”
“Of course, I would like very much to do this,” said Avi.
When I complimented Avi for his professionalism and patience, Avi said, “There is always a story. If I react in the wrong way, it is on me, it would poison my whole day. I choose not to let that happen.” I wanted to ask how long Angry Bird planned to stay at the hotel, but knew they had as much right to be there as me.
Then the lights went out in Bocas. The entire island was dark. Avi taped flashlights in the hotel hallways and to posts on the deck for the guests. I went to get the cash I needed to pay my bill from the ATM at the bank on the other side of town.
While I was gone, Angry Bird managed to bring out an iPad or something, a music player of some sort, and for everyone’s enjoyment played an assortment of his favorite songs from the 70s and 80s, and of course there was Country.
He and his girlfriend got good and drunk, began to start conversations with everyone else, regardless of how far away they were sitting. If that was across the deck, Angry Bird and girlfriend just raised their voices. If the other person was from Boston, they talked about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. If they were from New York, it was the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
They didn’t have much to say to me, I was from Oregon, nothing much happens there and I didn’t much encourage the exchange.
So, even though the lights went out in Bocas, that had nothing to do with my decision to leave. It was just time to go.